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Sen. Kaine mourns Donald McEachin: 'He will have a successor but won't really have a replacement'

Posted at 2:02 PM, Nov 29, 2022

RICHMOND, Va. -- Congressman Donald McEachin (D - 4th District) died Monday after a battle with colorectal cancer. He was 61.

U.S. Senator Tim Kaine (D - Virginia) first met McEachin in 1984. In 2001, McEachin ran for Virginia Attorney General on a ticket with then lieutenant governor candidate Kaine.

Sen. Kaine shared his memories of his longtime friend Donald McEachin the day after his passing. The following transcript is lightly edited for clarity

Sen. Tim Kaine (D - Virginia)

I just wanted to do this today to offer some thoughts about my friend Donald and how sad I am, Anne and I both are by his passing, which, though not surprising, in some ways, because we've known that he's been battling for a long time, a number of health issues was still kind of shocking, because he had battled without ever a complaint.

I mean, I've seen Donald all the time, I talked to him all the time. I asked about his health all the time and Donald never said a negative word and if he asked about his health, he said, You know, I'm getting better, I'm on the mend. And he was not a guy who really focused much on himself because he was so focused on others.

So I'll just say a few things about him and then I'm glad to open it up and take your questions.

I started law practice in Virginia in the fall of 1984, moving to Virginia to get married.

Donald had worked at the law firm that I began practicing with as a summer law student from the University of Virginia, the summer before I came.

And so at some point, in my first year of practicing, he came back to the office on a break from UVA to visit and he said, who's this guy in the office that I have last summer and we got to know each other that would have been late 1984, early 1985.

Donald graduated from UVA, began a very successful law practice in Richmond, first with a larger firm and then established his own firm where he and these two brothers, Donald Gee and Earl Gee just really were super well-regarded plaintiff's trial lawyers in Richmond and Donald was very, very effective. But we stayed really close friends.

When he was going to get married to Colette who was from South Carolina, the wedding was there, but Richmond friends and family threw a big wedding party for them when they got married and Anne and I were fortunate enough to be part of the crowd at the Richmond Marriott celebrating their wedding.

Donald and Colette have three daughters and their kids are just almost exactly lined up in age with ours.

And so we have spent time with their family.

Colette, at some point in her career, before she was a really well-regarded Richmond prosecutor, and now Commonwealth's Attorney, we worked together at my law firm. So this is a friendship that goes back a very long way.

When I was the Mayor of Richmond and announced I was going to run for Lieutenant Governor, Donald was in the legislature really supportive we both ended up on the ticket with Mark Warner in 2001.

Just coincidentally, about two weeks ago, I was cleaning out a bunch of t-shirts that I had socked away somewhere and I found a Warner, Kaine, McEachin t-shirt from the '01 campaign that we all were on together and that just really was like late last week that I found that put it through the washer to wash it and get it in good shape. And it's one of the first things I thought about when I heard the news last night.

Donald joined the Virginia delegation in the 2016 election, which was a very pivotal one for me, but I came up on the short end and that one and Donald came up on the winning end and how good it was to have him join us.

We had our first delegation lunch meeting about probably a week after Election Day in November and it still smarted to have lost in that race. But it made it feel a lot better that Donald as a representative elect was there. Now joining our group, and he's been a really important part of our delegations.

How many of you have heard us say, that we're the only state delegation that does this, that gets together once a month, Democrat, Republican, House, Senate to talk about what we can do for the Commonwealth and Donald, because he was a House member, because he was a senator. He has a lot of pre-existing relationships with people when he came.

Because he was a very successful lawyer, he has a real sense of the justice system.

But some of you know Donald went back many years after he got his law degree to Virginia Union to get a theology degree, he decided what he wanted to do was ground his public service in something more lasting than just the polls of the day or the issues of the day.

And that moral compass that Donald had, was a really important part of who he was. And he drew upon that, in his interactions with anybody, his colleagues or staffers or anybody he'd see, his constituents and it was a very obvious part of him.

Donald also became a real passionate advocate for environmental causes to battle climate change, and particularly, to promote environmental justice so that environmental issues weren't just for elite or interest groups, but they needed to be practical and they needed to affect everybody.

So one of the most significant environmental damage in our society is damage inflicted upon low income and minority communities, poor air quality, for example, that then leads to poor health outcomes. And Donald was really passionate and articulate about that.

So we're really going to miss him.

Anne and I were together. You know, we live in Richmond but Anne teaches one day a week at George Mason. Last night was the night that she taught. And so she was back over at the condo that I have in DC by about 745. And he made dinner together and we're hanging out after dinner when my phone started to blow up with people reaching out to tell me about Donald.

Anne and I had been together with Donald at his victory night celebration three weeks ago today. We had moved downtown, Donald was our congressman, we were able to walk to the victory celebration and a lot of places to be that night. And I remember a few days before Election Day, saying to Anne and my staff, we you know, it's actually an easy call, why don't we go to Donald's victory night because we've known him the longest, and he's our congressman. And we feel pretty confident that it's going to be a good night for him.

We were there.

He was obviously very, very excited to win. You know, he was it was noticeably slowed from what he had been when we ran on a ticket together 20-plus years ago, but I guess we kind of got used to thinking that though Donald was battling tough health issues, he just keeps plugging.

And so even though, you know, he was obviously frail that night, we've kind of grown to expect of Donald but yeah, that may be the case, but the guy is going to keep a smile on his face. He's going to keep plugging.

So when we heard that, that news last night, it was personally very saddening to us. So we spent a lot of time talking about wonderful memories over the years and battles fought together some that we won and some that we didn't, but always, as friends and, and always a person that I could respect and, and his constituents respected as well.

Cameron Thompson

As someone who's known him since the 80s, what was he like, as a person and as a friend?

Tim Kaine

Donald was about as loyal a friend as you could have.

I was on the Richmond City Council and it was 1998.

My wife Anne had been a legal aid lawyer and had taken a three-year sabbatical when our third child was born.

But the judges in the General District Court in Richmond asked Anne if she would become a General District Court Judge, a substitute judge, which meant if somebody was sick or had something and they needed somebody last minute, could they call and would she come up and be a substitute judge and Anne did that during the year she was home with our daughter. [She] kept her hand kind of in the Richmond legal community and the judges really liked her a lot.

Well, Anne then started back full-time at Legal Aid in January 1998. And within about a month, the General Assembly decided that they wanted to add a new judgeship both for the General District Court but also the Juvenile District Court in Richmond, and I remember Donald reached out, he's now in the legislature in the House. I think he was on the Courts of Justice Committee. And he reached out and recommended that Anne consider putting her head in the ring for the judgeship.

And she said, Well, look, I've been on sabbatical from legal aid for three years and I just got back there. And I'm kind of liking it. But he really encouraged her to do that. And she thought about it. And she did. And the legislature appointed her a judge, this would have been maybe in March or April 1998. They voted her in as a Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court judge. And I remember that that vote must have happened about 3 a.m. because the phone on our bedside table rang and I answered it, barely awake. And it was Donald on the other end. And he said, Hey, Tim, I just wanted to wake you up until you're sleeping with a judge.

That's the kind of guy Donald was, you know, he would do things like that watch out for Anne, watch out for me, help us out. I mean, we campaigned together everywhere all over the state in 2001.

Mark and I were able to narrowly eke out victories in that race. And Donald lost his race. But you know, he never showed any slowing down and he had been in the House and then wasn't in the House anymore, but he came back and ran a great race for Senate a few years later, and then he was a very important part of the Virginia State Senate before he came to Congress.

He comes from a really good family enrichment parents, wonderful people.

Dad, an Army veteran, Donald was born overseas on an Army base in Germany and mother real strong influence in his life. And I think Donald was always very interested in politics and public service. I think he was the student body president American University when he was there as an undergrad.

I remember meeting him. And even, you know, when he came back to work as a summer associate at the law firm, where I now was a full-time lawyer, he came back and worked and I had a deposition one day up in DC and I remember driving with Donald by the White House on the way to the law firm, we're going to do the deposition. And he looked over at the White House and said, You know, I wonder if you could dream about living there one day, you know, he was kind of thinking about, about having been at American and having been in student politics there.

And maybe he'd get in politics in Virginia one day.

He was a history maker, you know, we the third African American to ever serve in Congress, from Virginia John Mercer Langston in the Reconstruction era, and then Bobby, Scott, and Donald.

The other thing I'll say is, I had the fortune to have a represent me a number of times.

I think Donald was my house member. Donald was my state senator for a while the districts had changed.

So sometimes it was Donald sometimes it was Jen McClellan.

Bobby Scott was my congressman for a long time, but then they changed the lines, and Donald became my congressman.

He's been my colleague, he's been my friend, he's represented me, and it's just been a relationship.

I really can't believe that he's gone. And I can't believe that. We were, you know, 20 Somethings when we met and now we're, you know, now we're mourning his loss.

Olivia Jaquith

But can you also describe the loss in terms of his service to this community?

Tim Kaine

Donald is a child of Richmond. He grew up in Northside, Richmond, and then in Henrico County and educated and Richmond K 12. And, you know, when to American That was about as far away from Virginia as he would get, as you know, five miles across the Potomac, and then back to UVA for law school.

So I mean, he is Richmond, to the bone, and has always been, whether it was his law practice, or the church that he attends, or the philanthropic and charitable activities that he's worked in.

In addition to his public service career it has all been based in Richmond. And I think Donald had a particularly strong reputation as not just a good legislator, but a real fierce advocate for his constituents. So in every congressional office, every Senate office, a big chunk of the workforce, does constituent service, helping somebody if their homes going to get foreclosed, or a veteran who can't get a benefit, or somebody who is overseas, and they got their passport stolen, and they need help.

Donald and his team, and I give a lot of credit to Donald's team, they have been really, really good at the constituent service side. And anybody who knows Donald knows that, you know, they'll done constituent service for anybody, but particularly if it's anybody who would fall into the category of an underdog, however, we would describe that Donald and his team would really go to bat for you.

He was also a real favorite of Speaker Pelosi.

I mean, they're people who've been in the house longer than Donald. But Donald had leadership roles over in the House, in terms of, you know, whipping votes and trying to get folks on the same page and Speaker Pelosi, it was actually Speaker Pelosi was the first person that reached out to me about the news.

And that just shows that he might have not been the most senior member of the delegation or the most senior member of the House of Representatives, but he had very, very deep ties with his colleagues, colleagues of mine in the Senate who served with Donald in the House, Ben Ray Luján from New Mexico coming over to me today to talk about how much they cared about Donald and how much they're gonna miss him.

Brendan Ponton

Senator, this is Brendan Ponton with WTKR in Hampton Roads, and he just said he was Richmond to the bone but he also did represent Hampton Roads until basically the most recent redistricting. Was there anything that comes to mind and what he was pushing for in terms of Hampton Roads?

Tim Kaine

Donald and I have a great bill that we're still working on trying to get passed, which is to designate the Great Dismal Swamp as a national heritage area.

Recent scholarly work and excavations in the Great Dismal Swamp have shown that it was really a tremendous site for both Nansemond Indians, but also, many, many runaway slaves.

They would run away into the swamp, they would set up these small communities. They were known as maroons because it was like they were marooned on a deserted island or somewhere that was such a forbidding place.

But Donald has taken the lead along with me and also some North Carolina legislators because the swamp goes over the state water and trying to get that part of the Dismal Swamp's history recognized through its designation as a national heritage area.

We're also working on a larger Chesapeake Recreation Area.

Donald's been important that the John Smith Scenic Water Trail. Anything in the environmental space to deal with climate change to combat sea level rise to promote the beauty and the health of the Chesapeake Bay. Donald was always a real leader on that.

I'm trying to put in my own mind kind of the timing of him really emerging as an environmental champion, to the time that he now was representing part of Hampton Roads, it might have even been in connection with running for a seat in 2016 that included a lot of, of Hampton Roads that kind of pushed that issue for Donald to the forefront.

But certainly, the environment had no better champion in the Virginia congressional delegation than Donald McEachin.

Olivia Jaquith

We are all still grieving this loss and that will be a very long time. I'm sure that process will take quite a long time. But I did want to ask, you know, he was just reelected. How do we move forward? Are there any candidates who stand out to you and what kind of happens next? What's the process?

Tim Kaine

So it's interesting Olivia, I sort of know the process, but I haven't been through it yet since the time I have been here.

The House is different than the Senate if there's a death of a senator the governor fills the vacancy until there can be a special election and the special elections are always in the next November election, since Virginia has an election every November would usually be within a year.

That's not the way it works in the House there.

You don't fill a vacancy with a gubernatorial appointment you call a special election.

And Governor Youngkin, I think Governor Youngkin, is sort of in the driver's seat on the timing of that.

So I don't really know, obviously, what the timing will be here, here would be my hope.

You got to have enough time for people to campaign and recognize, okay, it's the holiday season. And you don't want to completely make everybody give up their holidays with their family. So you got to give time for people to campaign.

But you also want to have somebody in the seat quickly so that the constituents of the Fourth District are not unrepresented.

Donald's team has said very plainly, hey, look, we are here and we're going to serve constituents until there's a successor that's elected. And that's very much what Team McEachin would do. And I was happy to hear them say that because that's what Donald would want.

But I hope that there can be a special election properly within the new year to make sure that the Fourth is represented.

As far as candidates, it's too early. You know, people have to decide what they're going to do too early to speculate about that.

But I'll tell you, no matter who the candidates are, they have very, very big shoes to fill.

Donald McEachin, he will have a successor but he won't really have a replacement.

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